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The Student Strikes of 1970

Fifty years after Boston College students walked out of their classrooms over a proposed tuition increase and United States foreign policy, students are once again away from their classrooms. In 2020, students are attending classes over Zoom and handing in assignments on Canvas. But in 1970, they were destroying offices, the marching band was disrupting classes, and the campus was in a state of flux.

Professor Harold Petersen was watching the events of that semester as they unfolded. When he first arrived on the Heights in 1960, he was nervous about teaching at the University because he was a Lutheran. When BC offered him a job as an economics professor, he accepted it, thinking it might be an interesting place to spend a small portion of his teaching career. Petersen went on to teach at BC for 56 years, before retiring in 2016.

When he came to the Heights as a professor, Rev. Michael Walsh S.J. was the president. Walsh had an ambitious goal, Petersen explained: He wanted to see BC become a major national university. In the ’60s, BC grew rapidly as Walsh aimed to funnel resources into hiring a diverse faculty, accelerating residence hall construction, and creating doctoral programs to attract new professors, Petersen said.

As BC expanded its programs, costs began to rise rapidly. Rev. Seavey Joyce S.J. stepped in as president in 1968, and he was confronted with a $4.6 million deficit, the equivalent of $34.4 million in 2020.

“We had a history of raising tuition by $200 every two years,” Petersen said. “Doesn’t sound like much now, but at the time, most of those students were commuters, first-generation college students working very hard to come up with the tuition money.”

As the financial crisis at BC became more apparent to Joyce and the faculty, the Board of Trustees gave Joyce permission to raise the tuition by $400—from $1,600 to $2,000. Students were miffed about the tuition increase, Petersen said, but they ultimately accepted the hike, as they were given an assurance it would stay at that price for the next two years.

“But then the next year, we still had a deficit,” he said. “And the board gave Joyce the authority to raise tuition from anywhere from 200 to 500. He opted for the full 500.”

Students were outraged, Petersen said. They watched as the president made no attempt to lower costs elsewhere in the University.

“[He] made no efforts immediately to cut costs,” Petersen said. “And the students saw this huge tuition increase, and they were quite correct to observe that no efforts had really been made to try to cut costs. He could have instituted a hiring freeze. He could have frozen salaries even to cope with the deficit. But he opted for business as usual.”

In an altogether novel semester for BC, two strikes were happening alongside each other—both the students and their student publication, The Heights, were attempting to send a message to the administration.

The months of unrest surrounding students debating the proposed tuition increase were tumultuous for the paper. The editorial board had been exploring options to become independent, before the University’s announcement that it was terminating funding for the paper over a controversial article. Heights members had been discussing with the administration options to repair relations between the paper and the University, but these proved to be futile, according to former student and current Heights board member, Tom Sheehan.

An article in The Heights would lead an alum to publish a column in the now-defunct Boston Herald Traveler, where he would call the article offensive. Within 24 hours, The Heights was told it would no longer be receiving funding at the end of the year.

“As I look back at it, that’s no way to resolve a crucial situation, dealing with a crucial entity on the campus like the student newspaper,” Sheehan said.

In the weeks that followed The Heights would go on strike.

“Our strategy prior to that was to withhold the paper from the students and get the students in our side, you know, to pressure the University to give us a fair plan going forward that would keep The Heights alive and the alumni off their backs,” Sheehan said.

Timothy Anderson, BC ’73, proved to be a liaison between Joyce and the student body. After arriving on campus in 1969, Anderson became an active member in UGBC. He was elected to be a member of the Social Committee of UGBC his freshman year—and during his time in this position, he began to forge a relationship with Joyce. As the effort around the strike in 1970 ramped up, he kept his relationship with Joyce intact. 

Anderson was spurred into a leadership role on the Strike Tactics Committee, which communicated between the administration and the student body about information surrounding the strike. The members of the Strike Tactics Committee wanted to keep protests from devolving into violence and knew that an open communication channel with University leadership would be key in doing so, Anderson said. So he entered the front lines of the protests, working toward resolving the conflict peacefully.

Meanwhile, The Heights resumed regular publication in April of the very same year, as members of the paper felt they had a duty to report on the tuition strike and to keep the student body informed, according to Sheehan. The editors felt they had a duty to report “truth” on campus to compensate for a lack of transparency from the administration, he said.

“When I was a student, I thought the University was essentially not coming clean on the reality of what had led to the tuition strike, and not coming clean on the reasons that they cut off our funding,” Sheehan said. “You know, 50 years later, after a career in journalism, with the benefit of hindsight, I feel the same way.”

BC students at the time decided that the tuition strike was a necessary measure to combat what they perceived to be an injustice, according to Sheehan.

“Boston College students were pretty conservative relative to their peers, say at Berkeley or Michigan or other places … But this was just too much,” Petersen said.

Joyce held a meeting on April 8 to present the $500 tuition increase to the student body—but it didn’t go quite as he planned, according to Petersen. Students began tapping their feet, chanting “strike, strike, strike.” And strike they did.

“They enlisted the members of the band immediately, who went up and down the corridors in Carney Hall with big bass drums and with trumpets making enough noise so it would be impossible to really conduct a class if one tried to conduct a class,” Petersen said.

Anderson’s close relationship with the University president proved to be a vital asset to the student strike committee as tensions escalated throughout his freshman year. Although students were pushing for change on a number of issues, from the Vietnam War to race relations to allowing women in schools beyond School of Education and School of Nursing, the tuition hikes were really what got the student body’s attention, Anderson said.

Sheehan remembers it similarly.

“There was more of a yearning by young people, at that time, to essentially question all these assumptions that previous generations had accepted about the credibility of the government, about the credibility of institutions, and about whether we were being told the truth, whether we were being led down the right path,” he said.

The UGBC Congress unanimously voted on April 9 to officially start striking the following Monday until Joyce tabled the tuition increase and agreed to negotiate with Congress. Prior to the UGBC vote, the School of Management and the School of Nursing had both voted to support any action taken by UGBC, and the School of Education and the School of Arts and Sciences had both voted to strike. 

As a professor, Petersen and his colleagues were obligated to hold class, although only two or three students out of 20 would attend for the remainder of the tuition strike. Unlike the spring semester of 2020, in which the campus is mostly vacant, Petersen said that traditional college life continued at BC despite the prominent strike. Following the syllabus would prove to be a little tricky for Peterson—the few students would come to class and would discuss the strike, the Vietnam War, and anything else they found pertinent.

“Most of the resident students were all on campus, they’re eating in the dining halls, they’re living in the dorm,” Petersen said. “So it’s very different from what’s happening now.”

Yet, despite students like Anderson being so involved in the protests throughout the spring of 1970, there was still a large part of the student body that remained completely uninvolved in the strikes, or actively opposed them. 

“There was this big exodus from the campus of people who just didn’t buy into it,” Anderson said. “You still have students who can man barricades and picket lines, show up at a demonstration, or shut down the class, or all those kinds of things, but there were a whole bunch of people who just said … ‘I’m going to the Cape.’”

The novel coronavirus has spurred those same feelings of uncertainty and fear that they felt during the tuition strike, Petersen explained.

“[They were] wondering how long it was going to last, wondering what would come next,” Petersen said. “Students were wondering whether it would affect their job prospects and whether they’re going to graduate on time and how they were going to be graded. All of that was up in the air, so long as the strike lasted.”

Students and the administration began to negotiate a price point that would end the strike. There had been discussions between the administration and the student body about an agreement for a $240 increase. But on April 21, 77 percent of the student body voted against a 19-point plan proposed by the administration, which included this increase. A student referendum, scheduled for May 5, was held to decide whether students would accept a new 16-point plan, which also included a $240 increase, among other things. 

Then, on May 4, four Kent State University students were killed by National Guard troops during a protest against U.S. military action in Cambodia.

The next day, the front page of The New York Times showed an image of a student at Kent State, looking up in anguish, kneeling over the body of a fallen student.

“It was a picture that impacted students immensely everywhere,” Petersen said.

BC students decided to end the tuition strike, while starting a new strike to protest the U.S. military action in Cambodia. BC students joined others from over 300 other colleges across the country in the effort to combat the Vietnam War.

Joyce saw this as a window, Petersen said, to become an advocate for the student body.

“The president had seen an opportunity to become the students’ hero … and lead the students in a strike against the war,” Petersen said.

The Academic Senate had been pushing BC to sever all ties with ROTC due to the anti-war sentiment that was present on campus and throughout the United States at the time.

In the fall of 1970, BC would sever ties with ROTC.

After holding a rally on the Dustbowl to speak out against ROTC, the protestors proceeded to vandalize the ROTC office. It was futile, Petersen explained. He described students breaking into the building, tearing down pictures, and shattering glass on the walls.

“It was the only way they saw to protest the war,” Petersen said.

Eventually, the students voted in favor to cut ties with ROTC. Though the Academic Senate had made their position clear, the Board of Directors still had the power to make the final call in the fall of 1970. The prospect of completely cutting ties with ROTC was upsetting to some, Petersen explained, including the Board of Trustees and himself. But at the time, Joyce fed into the fire of the students, encouraging their efforts—Petersen said he saw it as the best way to show them that he was on their team. 

“His presidency was really all but over,” Petersen said. “I mean, he had lost the support of the alumni, and he had lost the support of a bunch of the faculty, and he lost the support of many of the members of his Board of Trustees. They couldn’t understand what was happening at Boston College.”

Just like in March of 2020, when BC faculty were forced to figure out how to handle classes potentially going online, Petersen and other faculty members met to come to a conclusion about the rest of their school year. They decided that students could be graded on a pass/fail basis, and if someone wanted a letter grade, they could arrange with their individual professors to discuss what the work would look like for the rest of the semester.

Anderson’s close ties to faculty members remained a definitive factor in him having a leadership voice during this time. In the summer of 1970, he was hired by the president’s office to travel around the country and explain to alumni what was happening. He even visited Wallace E. Carroll, namesake of the Carroll School of Management. 

“He was very gracious and welcoming, but he could not imagine a BC where students had done this kind of a strike,” Anderson said. “I sat there and explained the motivations of the strike and the behavior of the students and why he would have been proud of BC students throughout the entire strike, and I said it from the position of somebody who knew every step of everything. And it worked. He kept giving money.”

Sheehan recalls the time around the strike in 1970 and the year following as a formative period for BC and the students there.

“My reaction, even in all these years, you know, looking back is, this was a time unlike any other at BC as it was a time unlike any other … in the country,” he said.

May 5, 2020